I don’t know how I’ve gone so long in my life without watching The Sopranos. All that time I’ve been wasting on Greek (an embarrassing guilty pleasure) when Paulie and Tony and Christopher were running amuck in New Jersey. While, yeah, some scenes in the show are pretty graphic, have you seen the food?! Those sociopaths eat like kings.
From Artie Bucco’s Vesuvio to the ziti on the Soprano dinner table, Italian fare is a constant backdrop in the series. While pasta is usually my go-to in terms of Italian food, the minute I heard Tony grunt, “Where’s the eggplant?” there was no turning back. I yanked the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook off the bookshelf and pawed to a recipe for Eggplant Parm in the “Bringing Home the Italian Favorites” section .
Once the holidays finally crawled to a whimpering end, I felt compelled to embrace January 2011 as the month of healthy, mindful eating. The 12 days of Cherry Winks and gulps of Robert Mondavi Cabernet caught up with me, and while I deeply acknowledge the cliche of resolving to lose a few pounds come the New Year, I stayed true to my hopes of a slimmer silhouette. Unfortunately, my preoccupation with a limited caloric intake and regular exercise caused a brief dry spell with Scared of Cooking. Today’s Bears Vs. Packers game, however, brought out an unavoidable spread of tortilla chips and salsa, spinach artichoke dip, and white cheddar popcorn. It goes without say that my newly established eating plan quickly flew out the window this Sunday, and I couldn’t wait to work on a new artery-clogging, lip-smacking recipe for my next SOC post.
“Do something chocolate,” eagerly suggested my friend Jenny, a cupcake fiend and SOC supporter from Day 1. I was happy to oblige.
After scrolling through my favorite food blogs’ chocolate sections, I was torn between two chocolate-intensive desserts: chocolate pudding and chocolate mousse. Both delicious, yes, but glancing out the window to the icy sidewalks and 4 pm sunset after a disappointing Bears loss, the comfort of homemade pudding seemed like a winner.
I wish it were acceptable for a 23-year-old to use an Easy Bake Oven. Those tiny little cake pans would be great for portion control nowadays, don’t you think? When I played with my Easy Bake at the tender age of, I’m not sure, around 7 maybe, I had a great baking ritual. I’d plug in the oven over by the ledge where my mom kept her plants, switch the tiny TV on to America’s Funniest Home Videos (back in the days of Bob Saget, man), and stir together a little pouch of dry ingredients with some water and love. On most occasions I’d lap up so much of the batter that there was little left for the actual baking, but that was all really part of the experience.
Now I finally have a grown-up version of the treasured baking device, all thanks to a generous gift from one of my favorite couples during Christmas. The Babycakes Cupcake Maker really works for me, mainly because I seem to have a knack for over-baking traditional cupcakes. Not that my failures have ever prevented me from whipping up a pan of normal-sized cupcakes, but it’s nice to have an alternative. Especially when the alternative is in such a bright pink casing.
Lately I’ve felt a strange drive to find some great vegetarian soups. Maybe it’s the result of years of restaurant and grocery store soups presenting me with watery, boring broth-based concoctions with mushy veggies and rice. Try Olive Garden’s minestrone and you’ll know what I’m talking about. It always seemed like the best soups, the flavorful, appetizing ones, were made with various kinds of meat stock, thereby limiting my choices to veggie chili (ugh…) or the watery-rice-vegetable-tomato paste slop.
French Onion has remained a tantalizing little devil of a soup. Blast you, soup, for smelling so scrumptious but forever stewing in beef broth. But today, mind you, TODAY, the tables have turned. I finally thought to look at a recipe and get over my thought that French Onion would be a complicated mess to make. I pictured the process as a meltdown similar to Julie Powell’s beef bourguignon in Julie and Julia, but I should have known better, for that movie is stupid and this soup is easy-peasy.
My rant on Julie and Julia: I love Meryl Streep. She can do anything, even take on the ice. My sweet, darling Meryl did a heck of a portrayal of Julia Child. It’s the other half of the movie that is so irritating and absurd that it insults my intelligence as an out-of-work college graduate.
Out of all the Food Network star chefs, Ina Garten stands tall (and clad in blue-colored shirts) as my favorite. She spends her days trekking out to luxury cheese shops, later returning to her Hamptons estate in order to bake plum tarte tartin. Besides cooking for her precious husband Jeffrey, Ina loves entertaining her fabulous friends. In one episode of Barefoot Contessa, Mel Brooks came over to her house, where she promptly served him Stilton blue cheese with pears. Now that’s what I call a dame.
Ina scored even more points with me when I found her vegetarian recipe for split pea soup. “It’s about cotton-pickin’ time,” I mused, scribbling out a grocery list. I’d spent the day Christmas shopping on State Street in some poorly insulated shoes, so the timing of such a discovery was nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Remember when all that mattered on Christmas was if you got that Spin and Twirl Barbie? Or, for the fellas, a powerhouse game of Crossfire? I don’t think I’m alone in missing that feeling. Growing up, however, requires that we appreciate the finer things, such as the marvel of LED lights and the “fun” of preparing for holiday company. Wait! Don’t turn away, I’m no Grinch. Lately I’ve just been trying to think of ways to replicate that same Christmasey, “It’s almost here!” type of enthusiasm. Christmas cookies help tremendously with this hot-topic issue.
I love all Christmas cookies. Gingerbread, sugar, yada, yada, yada, they’re all wonderful. Sometimes, though, they can be a little boring. Christmas boring, which is different from everyday boring. I can still look at a frosted sugar cookie shaped like Santa and still think, “Aww..,” but it’s the same type of cookie on every table across the country. Is it too much to ask for pizazz in a Christmas cookie? Seriously, man, VISUALIZE.
Until a couple months ago, I rolled my eyes every time I heard someone scream the praises of quinoa. It’s one of those words that sounds pretentious no matter who you are or how often you cook with it. (“You’ve never tried quinoa?? It’s awesome. Really. I can’t believe you haven’t tried it.” ) I mean, come on. Quinoa sounds like a made-up name adopted by one of those hippies who squats on Milwaukee, North, and Damen. Moving on, I fought the quinoa bandwagon, but I lost. I lost hard. Suddenly I’ve become the girl who searches foodnetwork.com for new variations on quinoa recipes, forwarding them to friends who couldn’t be less interested.
Quinoa is a funny little thing. It looks like a grain, it tastes like a grain, but holy moly, it’s a seed! To top off that fun kernel of trivia, quinoa is high in protein, low in carbs, and a great substitute for dishes calling for barley, rice, and couscous.
A recipe for a barley risotto caught my eye when I was browsing other food blogs. Featuring greens and Parmesan, the dish seemed like a perfect combination of warmth and earthiness for an 8 degree night in Chicago. The only question was whether or not quinoa would work in the recipe. Mind you, this was the first time I had worked with quinoa, and I was a bundle of nerves. Not necessarily from fear of failure, but fear of wasting another chunk of cash on ingredients. Lucky for me and anyone who likes good food, it was unbelievably good.